Tips for Retaining & Training Flight Crews Today

In a world where many seasoned pilots are tempted away from Business Aviation flight departments with big-money contracts leaving a gap in experience, how can you keep your crew together, filling any gaps in experience? Andre Fodor shares his thoughts…

Andre Fodor  |  14th June 2022
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    Andre Fodor
    Andre Fodor

    With a focused approach on global excellence and creativity, Andre Fodor has managed flight operations...

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    A business jet pilot prepares to fly his aircraft

    Only recently, I invited two former colleagues for lunch to celebrate their appointments to fly for one of the major airlines. We were just discussing the abundance of opportunities currently available in the industry as we ordered appetizers when both their phones rang. 

    Each was receiving a call from other airlines asking if they were interested in coming for interviews. It was truly incredible to see. It also emphasized the fact that the corporate aviation industry had just lost two very experienced pilots.

    I never made a specific decision to work in corporate aviation. Rather, I was steered towards Business Aviation by the lack of jobs available with the airlines. And having tried it, I enjoyed it. I cut my aviation teeth in the charter and fractional industries, biding my time and gaining experience before moving into bigger, more advanced business jets.

    Having always enjoyed the direct interaction which passengers that private aviation brings, the challenges of flying to new destinations and the preparation for some very challenging trips continue to excite me. After thirty years in Business Aviation, I have been nearly everywhere around the globe, meeting some amazing people.

    But, despite all of this, right now there are so many temptations for people who love flying airplanes to move out of Business Aviation – so many jobs that hold allure.

    The Experience Gap

    As I talk with industry colleagues working in charter operations, stories of pilots low on experience occupying seats in aircraft that are crossing oceans and poles come up. With the current market demand, the seasoned pilots are moving into higher-paying jobs, leaving a gap where they would once have transferred valuable operational knowledge to less seasoned pilots.

    This is obviously a less-than-perfect scenario in an environment that requires a high degree of mastery.

    Meanwhile, the legacy airlines are struggling to fill training slots as candidates don’t show up for initial training having been seduced by other, aggressive offers. Several are resorting to “hiring and storing”, as in starting the new pilot on guaranteed pay, but with training scheduled months into the future due to a lack of available instructors and simulators. My two friends mentioned earlier will only begin their training three months from now.

    In private aviation, things are just as tough. One large charter operator hired fifty pilots last year and lost seventy to other jobs. That same operator planned the addition of sixteen large-cabin jets to cover growing demand from new and existing customers. The math simply doesn’t add up.

    Meanwhile, we’ve seen a recent rise in incidents such as runway excursions, which is obviously disconcerting. Industry peers involved in training and checking describe a growing lack of knowledge of aircraft performance among their trainees. Topics such as accelerate/stop, second segment climb, missed approach gradient, contamination corrections, and hold-over times generate puzzled looks.

    A growing reliance on electronic guidance is reported, as is a lack of discernment as to when technology has limitations. In order to mitigate these gaps in pilot knowledge, I suspect that Business Aviation will have to follow the airlines in providing trip-specific, “canned performance” for every take-off and landing.

    What Needs to Happen to Enhance Experience?

    To help our industry’s pilots gain more experience, I’d like to see a change in the training and checking process – specifically during initial training.

    Whereas today the typical syllabus is structured with many days of ground school, followed by several simulator sessions before a check ride, a new training protocol emulating the airlines would integrate computer-based training (CBT). Then the use of classroom time with experienced in-type instructors to apply the theory into real-life scenario discussions could provide tangible know-how transfer.

    The simulator sessions could become progressive checks, freeing up valuable time to learn advanced aircraft operations, instead of repeating the same maneuvers (already met to gain proficiency) in preparation for the check ride.

    If the airlines do it already, what is the Business Aviation industry waiting for?

    Moreover, as airline pilots reach mandatory retirement age, we should be considering them as a potential recruitment pool. Many are experienced professionals who are still fit to fly.

    Ultimately, the question will be whether they can successfully transfer from a scheduled airline environment into Business Aviation: Will they adapt to new roles requiring flight planning, loading baggage, and even servicing a lavatory?

    How to Gain Loyalty in your Flight Operation

    Surveys indicate that corporate pilots value quality of life (QoL) over salary. The challenge remains as to how we incorporate that QoL?

    For example, in my flight department, consisting of just enough pilots to fly our aircraft, granting vacations can be a struggle – especially when contract pilots are finding full-time jobs or getting premium pay to work overtime on top of their ‘day jobs’.

    I can only guarantee my team extended leave during heavy maintenance checks when the airplane will be grounded for a longer period of time. So my mitigation technique is to keep everyone well informed of the opportunities for leisure time, and take really good care of our contract pilots so we are their preferred customer.

    ‘Salary’ and ‘longevity’ do indeed come high on the list of things corporate pilots value, after QoL. Pilot’s want good compensation, a predictable career path, and stability.

    All of this means that company principals need the understanding that a committed crew leads to lower costs, savings in everything from maintenance, to fuel, expense reports, and higher dispatch availability. 

    If a crew knows its principal values and respects QoL, it will work diligently to fulfill every aspect of the owner’s expectations.

    In my opinion, this should include (but not be limited to) an exit package if the airplane is sold, and the possibility of transitioning into a non-flying job if medical issues should cause the loss of a license. If the pilots know they’re cared for, they will develop a fierce long-term loyalty and commitment to their flight departments.

    Closing Thoughts

    There’s no denying the benefits of airline flying. Being part of a large operation has its perks, including coverage during sick leave, schedule flexibility, and an outlined career growth path.

    But as professional managers, we need to be careful to advertise the benefits of private flying too, valuing the excitement of private aviation, its ever-changing destinations, extended down-times that allow for crews to explore new locales, and flights that challenge a pilot’s skills and techniques.

    Finally, we need to be investors. Believe that you have made the right choice in staffing, invest in the growth of your team members, and in their development and future. Work hard to secure outstanding compensation and benefits on their behalf, and create an open-door culture ensuring your flight department is a great place to work.

    Read more articles on Flight Department Management

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